Categorized | Education

U of T library acquires a 500-year-old classic

Posted on 28 September 2016 by admin

When librarian P.J. Carefoote saw the opportunity to add what would be the oldest English-language book to the University of Toronto’s collection, he literally couldn’t wait to put his hands on it.

For Carefoote, medieval manuscripts and early books librarian at U of T’s Thomas Fisher Rare Book Library, purchasing a 1507 copy of The Golden Legend is a significant milestone for the university.

Considered more popular than even the Bible at one point during the Middle Ages, the book blends fact and fiction in telling the stories of saints’ lives.

“People loved them because they were good stories,” Carefoote said. “The text itself is interesting, but for us I think what is important is the fact it’s an early instance of English printing.”

Compiled in the original Latin during the 1200s by the Italian Dominican archbishop Jacobus De Voragine, the stories became “immensely” popular two centuries later after being translated into the living languages of Europe.

 “Certainly by the 15th century, people were reading them in French, German, Dutch and English,” said Carefoote. “The Bible was in Latin, so that was not as readily accessible, whereas this was in vernacular languages, so people could understand without anyone doing interpretation for them.”

William Caxton, who established the first printing press in England, translated The Golden Legend to English, and one of his students printed his version after his death. That’s the version now available at U of T.

Like all of the Rare Book Library’s works, it’s available for the public to read, and even touch, with their bare hands. Its pages, which total about 800, are made of rag, more durable than modern paper made from wood pulp.

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